Reevaluating What’s Important

I am in my first year at a new school this year, which among other things, means I am being formally evaluated for the first time in a while. I like to think that there is no difference in who I am as a teacher between the years I am being evaluated and the years that I am not. In the years I am being evaluated, I just talk (and write and document) about what I am doing a bit more. I am also a little more likely to give a side eye when an evaluator is in my room to the students who might be more likely to utilize some of the mathematical cussing that I may or may not have taught them. Oh shift, they can be some real asymptotes sometimes.

I have sat through many pre- and post-observation meetings, discussing my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve analyzed the language in the Danielson Framework for Teaching and broken down each of the domains. If you are ever having a hard time falling asleep at night, I highly recommend reading up on the Danielson Framework. You’ll be out before you finish 1a) Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy. I’ve collected the data, analyzed it, and completed formal write-ups. The math teacher in me secretly loves the data part of it just a little bit. I’ve debated 3’s and 4’s, proficient and excellent. I’ve questioned what I can do better, do more of. I’ve self-evaluated my strengths and weaknesses. The former straight-A student in me spent a few hours of my life that I’ll never get back realizing that the only way to get that allusive “Excellent” across the board is to give up sleeping, eating, socializing, and probably just take up a full time residence in my classroom.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think evaluating, reflecting, and remembering that there is always room for growth and improvement. In year 6 of teaching, I see how far I have come from year 1 and how far I could go. I would do a thousand things differently, but I also recognize all that I have done that I am proud of in my classroom. Heck, that’s a part of 4a) Reflecting on Teaching!

However, reflecting on the evaluation process has me reevaluating what is most important in my classroom. Sure, my students better be learning a heck of a lot math. While they are doing that, I hope I am helping them become critical thinkers, problem solvers, effective communicators, and ethical, life-long learners. But sometimes I need to remind myself that some of the most important things in my classroom can’t be checked off of a to-do list. They don’t show up in one of the four domains. They are little, unmeasurable things that can’t fit nicely into a rubric. That might make them all the more important to do.

I am repeatedly reminded that I have the opportunity to show my kids kindness, compassion, grace, and patience. And I’ve never once regretted embracing that opportunity, even if it has been really hard to do. Teenagers are the most human bunch of humans to ever human. What I mean by that is that they are far from perfect. However, they are in the midst of really figuring out what it means to be human in this world, which every full grown adult in this world will tell you is a never ending and truly challenging thing to do. I take several very deep breaths throughout my day. I have plopped myself down in many a coworkers classrooms at the end of the day and started with, “YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT THIS CHILD DID THIS TIME” and not in a good way. However, every chance I have the opportunity to be cruel, I try to be kind. When I have the chance to be cold, I try to choose compassion. I try to choose patience, even when it is tested. Sometimes I can’t see the big picture and I wonder if it really matters. It could be so much easier to do the opposite. It also seems that in those moments, that’s when a memory, a note, a trinket, a visit, or a message from a former student appears, reminding me that embracing those opportunities every time I could was absolutely the right thing to do, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. There’ll be plenty of times where the world does not show them kindness, compassion, grace, and patience. I don’t need to add to that. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll extend the same courtesy the next time they have the choice too.

Sometimes I feel like from 7:45am-3:15pm, I don’t get a moment to myself. Every once in a while, that can be a bit challenging. We all need a moment, especially if I’m going to recharge my patience. However, I’ve recognized that there is something special about a student spending even a moment more with you than they need to. Whether it’s a quick good morning en route to their class, a goofy wave on their way to the bathroom from another class, the “I’ve got a story to tell you!” when I’m trying to get to the bathroom, checking to see if I’ll be at their play/concert/game, the “I don’t know what to do with my life” lunchtime freakout, the before class “CHECK OUT MY DONUT SOCKS! I KNEW YOU’D APPRECIATE THEM!” or “I’ve had the worst day ever” after school slump, I am reminded that it is wild that I get to be a person these students want to share these things with and it must mean I’m doing something right.

I read something once that said students learn best from teachers that they like. Although I think there is a lot of truth to that, I think students learn best from teachers who like them. Nowhere on the evaluation rubric do you get to discuss liking your students. Every year, people ask me how my students are. Every year, regardless of the course I’m teaching, the environment I’m in, the grade level I have, I find myself saying, “I’ve got a really good group this year.” It’s never a lie or just what I’m supposed to say. Every year, I just feel like I get to spend my days with the niftiest group of humans. Some days it is a little more obvious than others, but at the end of the day, I just like them a whole bunch. I have been known to sit down with my class rosters at the end of a particularly rough day and go through student by student and think of something nice to say about each and every person in a class. It’s always easier than I think it will be. I also make a deliberate effort to send positive emails home where I just tell families how nifty I think there child is. At the end of every email, I find myself typing “I’m really glad I get to be their teacher.” I made a rule with myself that I’m not allowed to send those emails unless my heart is really in it. It can’t be something I need to do to cross off of my to-do list. I’ve noticed that since I’ve started doing this, it’s easier to see the good in every student on a daily basis.

So I’ll finish this formal evaluation cycle. I’ll continue to fill out the forms, have the conversations, side eye my students into good observations, collect the data, and so on and so forth. However, in the midst of all of that, I won’t lose sight of evaluating what really matters in my classroom and beyond.

 

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Teaching is Loving Outrageously

I didn’t make the cheer squad in middle school and I never did quite master juggling, and yet, it feels like that is exactly what I spend my days doing. Cheerleading and juggling. At the same time. In addition to teaching math, creating math songs and dances, ensuring the safety and well-being of my students, handling the avalanche of emails that end up in my inbox, tracking down students who should be in my class but aren’t, kicking out the students that should be somewhere other than my classroom, eating donuts, grading, and trying to be a functioning human being. Sometimes I wonder why I am so tired all of the time, and then I realize the amount of multi-tasking I am doing at any given moment. I’ve often seen a statistic that says teachers make an average of 1,500 educational decisions. A day. A DAY. No wonder that when it comes time for me to decide what is for dinner I find myself crying on my kitchen floor because decisions are hard (well, decisions and life sometimes). I would be lying if I said I haven’t tried to figure out a way to position my computer so that I could type emails with my foot, teach at the board, and write passes at the same time.

If you know me at all, you know that it is no secret that I have a special place in my heart for all of my students, especially my more challenging students. Call me crazy, but I love a good challenge. They are often referred to lovingly, and sometimes frustratedly, as “my kiddos.” People often ask my why I decided to be a high school math teacher. Well, besides the pay, glory, and fame, I did it for the summers off. Just kidding. A little. I like math, but I LOVE working with teenagers. They are the niftiest bunch of frustrating weirdos you could spend your day with, and I think it is pretty cool that I get to use math as a way to prepare them to be full blown functioning adults that might possibly one day change the world. Some days I see those things happening right before my very eyes. Some days I have to remind myself that it’s all about the little victories, and that I might not get to see the tree that grows from a seed planted in high school, but that doesn’t make that tree any less special.

I have a student this year who is going to be responsible for my first grey hair, without a doubt. I don’t even have her in class, actually, and yet, she is going to age me. We work together on her behavior and her academic work, and I often feel for as many steps forward as we take together, every little victory we celebrate, we often end up with a giant leap backwards. We recently had a chat where I was very honest with her. I told her that I am continually telling everyone just how incredibly awesome I think she is. I told her I will continue to tell everyone how incredibly awesome I think she is, because I completely believe it is true. But people are starting to think that maybe I’m crazy, because they don’t get the chance to see that side of her. When I start to think that maybe I am, I remember how far she’s come in the past year, and all though we still have a ways to go, that progress should never be belittled.

We had a speaker at the beginning of the school year named Dr. Sharroky Hollie. It was probably the best professional development I’ve ever sat through, and I’ve sat through a lot. Seriously, teacher friends, look him up, and if you get any say on speakers for staff, you want him. He covered so many important things relating to Culturally Responsive Teaching. The thing that stuck with me the most was his talk about outrageous love. He said that every day should be a day where we show outrageous love to the students who need it the most. It’s been said that the students who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving way and boy oh boy is that true. But with every frustrating situation (of which there are many), I remind myself that this is the perfect time to show outrageous love. I know I’m not the only one in my building reflecting on outrageous love. While talking to a student in need of some outrageous love with another teacher, the student asked why we cared so much. The other teacher proclaimed, “BECAUSE THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS LOVE!”

So in addition to juggling all of the day to day tasks of teaching, I add in outrageous love, which to me, feels a heck of a lot like cheerleading. Sometimes I feel like I am continually cheering, “I BELIEVE IN YOU, I WANT YOU TO SUCCEED AND I KNOW THAT YOU CAN, AND I FIERCELY AND OUTRAGEOUSLY LOVE YOU!” I might just buy some pom poms and master a toe touch.

Sometimes outrageous love is exhausting. And you question if it’s worth it, if students even feel the love. And to be honest, after a particularly tough and exhausting few weeks, I was wondering if outrageous love was worth it. But then a student asked me for a letter of recommendation for college. If I’m being completely honest, I was surprised. This student hadn’t made it a secret that my class was nowhere near their favorite last year. But when this student asked me for their letter, they said they wanted me to write it because I had seen them at the worst, and loved them anyway. It was a much needed reminder, both that outrageous love is worth it, and that it’s not about where you start, but rather, where you end up and the growth it takes to get there.

I am by no means an expert, but here are some things that I have found help me outrageously love my students:

1.) Greet students at the door. I had heard this over and over, but this year I decided to make a conscious effort to be at my door during passing period whenever possible. I am continually amazed at how much more connected it makes me feel to my students. It gives us the chance to start the day on the right foot, and I honestly believe that more of my students are showing up on time.

2.) Send positive emails. I’ve started picking out a few students every week and I send a positive email home. It makes it easier to look for the good in my students.

3.) Hallway chats. Whenever possible, I try to immediately pull a student out in the hallway when behavior is not classroom appropriate. It gives us both a chance to voice our feelings without things getting blown out of proportion, and more often than not, we can both walk in to the classroom and have a reset. I also like to pull students out in the hallway for positive things. First off, it’s fun to watch them squirm when you tell them you want to talk to them. Second off, it reminds everyone that a hall chat isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes they don’t go so great though. Just last week I thought I was having a really productive conversation with a student about his behavior when he interrupted me halfway through to inform me that he didn’t like how I did my make-up.

4.) It takes a village. For a long time, I thought it was my job to find solutions for every challenge I face while teaching. I felt like if I asked for assistance, I was admitting defeat. It’s quite the opposite actually. Students need to know we are all working together for their success. I am so grateful for the coworkers who support me while outrageously loving. I am thankful that they help me brainstorm creative solutions for my most challenging situations.

5.) Remember that you are teaching almost adults. To me, this means remembering that you are teaching real humans with real thoughts and feelings. This means that there is a reason behind why a student is acting the way they are. “How does this make you feel?” and “Why do you feel this way?” are such important questions. A lot of times, I understand a student’s behavior much more when I take the time to listen to them. It also means that they are humans and humans make mistakes. Kids especially are still learning how to function as a human in the world, and it is part of our job to teach them how to do this. You can’t just assume they know it already.

6.) You can’t pour from an empty cup. I spent a lot of time trying to be super teacher. I sacrificed a lot of my own health and well-being because I thought I was doing it for my students. I realized that when I took the time to take care of myself, I was a much better teacher.

7.) It’s okay to let your students know you are human. Students can smell bullshit from a mile away. Be a genuine human with them. Let them know that you are imperfect and make mistakes. But also show them how to recover and redeem yourself.

8.) Keep a stash of things that make you smile. Some days are just going to be really, really awful. And on those days, when you find yourself googling “jobs that pay me to not interact with people, not wear real pants, and be able to use a bathroom anytime I want,” dig out those reminders that not all days will be great, and not all students will be success stories, but that you are doing good work and your work is worth it.

Teacher Appreciation Week 2.0

Author’s Note: This post was originally written a year ago. Updates are italicized.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! It really is a real thing, I promise. Obama made a proclamation and everything. Heck, Chipotle has Buy One, Get One Free burritos today. May is a tough month for teachers, so this week couldn’t fall at a better time. It’s the end of the year. The end is in sight, but there is so much to do. AP Tests, Prom, field trips galore, sporting events, graduation, the list goes on and on.

On the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week this year, President Trump’s administration announced that they would not continue with the education initiative Let Girls Learn, created by Michelle Obama, that facilitated educational opportunities for girls in developing countries. He also proposed cutting an after-school program that serves 1.8 million students who are economically disadvantaged. I have a feeling public school teachers won’t be receiving any sort of tweet of appreciation this week, but hey, at least Chipotle is still giving us free burritos!

This week, my advisory students were assigned the task of choosing a teacher that had an impact on their life and writing them a thank you letter. It is a struggle at this point of the year to get my advisory to do anything but complain. They rose to the occasion. Some wanted to write more than one. Some wanted me to track down addresses for teachers who worked at a different school. Some wanted to hand deliver them and others wanted them to be an anonymous surprise. Some wanted more time to make sure they really did their teacher justice. A few made a joke of it or took the lazy way out, because this isn’t a Hallmark movie special.

This year my students wrote thank you letters again with similar results. It has been fun to work on tracking down teachers from kindergarten through high school, sometimes in different states!

So I suppose it is only right that I also write a thank you to the teachers who have made me who I am today. I have been so fortunate to always have teachers in my life, including my own teachers, coworkers, and peers, who have inspired, challenged, loved, guided, bettered, and believed in me, long after I’ve left their classrooms. I could truly write about every teacher I have ever encountered, but it’s May and I’m a teacher and my to-do list is growing exponentially by the second. So here it goes:

Mrs. Vaughn, 3rd Grade: I had always liked learning, but Mrs. Vaughn’s 3rd Grade classroom at LGS made me fall in love with learning. It was impossible to pick a favorite subject, because she made them all come alive. She had us elect a local government to teach us civics. (I was one heck of a class mayor). Studying for spelling and times tests were exciting when turned into games. We made and played our own board games to learn about the solar system. I had my acting debut in her class. When an adult hurt my feelings, she taught me to handle it with grace and poise while still standing up for myself.

Ms. Mac, 4th Grade: Ms. Mac could have written the book on differentiation and the “I’m very disappointed in you” look. I have never seen a teacher strive to meet every student’s individual needs the way she did. I had read most of the books the class would be reading. So she went to the library and checked out new books for and wrote projects for me to complete to challenge me. No matter how bad you messed up, she never yelled or scolded. She let you know how disappointed in you she was because she knew you could do better. My heart still sinks to my stomach thinking about anytime I fell short of her expectations. I believed I could be better because she believed I could be better. And I still feel a little bit guilty to this day about continuing to pass notes even after she told me not to.

Mr. Adams, 7th Grade: Math was hard. Like really hard. Like whoever had the brilliant idea to put me in accelerated math was wrong. Until Mr. Adams made it fun. He taught me to laugh at myself. He taught me that we all deserve a second chance every once in a while. He taught me that just because it doesn’t come easily doesn’t mean it won’t come at all. I’ll even overlook the fact that he is a Cubs fan.

Mrs. Oxborrow, Drama: Freshman year is terrifying. I maybe would have gone home and never come back if it hadn’t been for Oxborrow’s smiling face on the first day of my drama class. Little did she know she would see me pretty much every single day for the next four years, whether it was drama class, independent study, play practice, coaching me for my speech team piece, letting me bug her at baseball games, or taking up her entire lunch so I could cry about how sometimes life just wasn’t fair.

Mrs. Fillman, Family and Consumer Science: There is a pretty good chance I wouldn’t be a teacher if it wasn’t for this woman. After taking her child development class and working High School/Pre-School, Mrs. Fillman was one of my bosses at my summer job at the Washington pool. One night when closing up, she asked me what I planned on doing with my life. I told her I had no idea. She told me I would be a teacher. I told her she was crazy and there is no way I would do that. She asked if I planned on working at the pool my entire life and throwing away a gift of working with kids. Well it was hard to argue with that.

Señora Sandy, Spanish: My students ask what I would teach if I didn’t teach math. I tell them I think I would teach Spanish because of Señora Sandy. She taught me that a foreign language was so much more than a college admission requirement. Spanish was a doorway to a global community. The talks of her travels abroad inspired me to see the world and I think of her every time I step on a plane. I traveled around Spain last summer because of all of the things Señora shared with me. I ate paella, observed the history, and attempted to immerse myself in the culture. When people ask why I chose Spain for my first solo trip abroad, I tell them because of Spanish 4 with Señora.

Mrs. Dayhoff, English: This blog exists because of this woman. She taught me to write for myself. Every day when we walked into her English 11 class, we were instructed to write. We wrote about anything we wanted to. There were no prompts or requirements. We were to write for the sake of writing. I looked forward to that free writing time every single day. It gave me a chance to sort out the thoughts and feelings I had as a 17-year-old in a safe space. She allowed us to write “DO NOT READ” at the top, and she would honor that. She taught me to write to share my feelings, sometimes with others and sometimes with myself. She assigned books that made you feel. She spent Saturdays with me at speech tournaments. She was one if the first adults to treat me like more than a teenager. She taught me that the little things were really big things. When she saw a copy of the play that my Mid-Illini conference winning (humble brag) speech piece was from in a used bookstore, she gifted it to me. I smile every time I see it on my bookshelf.

Mr. Smith, Math: I had decided I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to teach yet. That is, until I was in Mr. Smith’s class. Math never came easy to me. Everyone else seemed to get it right off the bat, but I had to work at it. Mr. Smith taught me to love the struggle. Many mornings were spent asking him to explain something just one more time while he had breakfast duty in the commons. He believed I could do it, so I in turn believed in myself. He was the first person I told that I was thinking about being a math teacher, and he was the first person he told me he really thought I could be successful as a math major.

Karin Sconzert, Secondary Education: My first college class ever was Education 101 with Karin Sconzert. My last official college class was Classroom Management with Karin Sconzert. I could not have asked for a better professor to bookend my Carthage career. She didn’t sugarcoat the business we were getting into. It was going to be hard. We were going to get frustrated. There would be a lot of things out of our control. A lot of education professors like to paint education as nothing but rainbows and butterflies. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a classroom will tell you that is false. Karin let us know what we were getting into an equipped us to be successful despite the obstacles. We read stories and listened to guest speakers. She put us in classrooms that allowed us to experience the real deal. She continues to support us into our careers, whether it’s sharing resources, or if your as lucky as I was, offering words of encouragement in her kitchen.

Janet Carpino, Math: I had the opportunity to observe Janet Carpino when I was completing my undergrad. I was overwhelmed with schoolwork and contemplating if I was making the right career path. Until I got placed in her Algebra 1A/1B class. Most of the students didn’t speak English as their first language. Many of them were special education. A lot of them had some severe behavioral issues. Watching a very pregnant Janet teach this class rejuvenated my decision to become a teacher. I wanted to be Mrs. Carpino. A few years later, I had the incredible opportunity to be her colleague. Her guidance and support helped me become the teacher I always dreamed of being.

Sonya Sutton, Math: December 2012 I received a piece of paper that changed my life. I would be teaching high school with Sonya Sutton in the Spring for my final student teaching placement. Her no-nonsense attitude equipped me to deal with my toughest classes. I had never met someone capable of treating every human they encounter with genuine respect, but Sonya does. She is now a guidance counselor. I think she spends just as much time providing guidance to the staff as she does providing guidance to the students.

Jackie Yunker, Math: I got really lucky when I got a work best friend and a life best friend all in one. I strive to achieve the patience she has when working with students. Her willingness to share lessons, ideas, insights, and baked goods is unmatched. Her willingness to set aside her to-do lists to let me vent has kept me sane. She believed in me as a teacher on the days I didn’t believe in myself.

Lea Sparks, Math: I used to spend my spring breaks and part of my summers in Kentucky with my aunt, who was a middle school math teacher. In August, we would go to the store where she would buy school supplies for all of her students, out of her own pocket. I remember being so confused as to why she would have to buy all of her students supplies out of her own pocket. She made sure every student had what they needed to be successful. When I would go to school with her, we would get to school before the sun made an appearance. She taught me that teaching is selfless.

I could go on and on and truly never do these incredible ladies and gentlemen justice. You have cheered with me in my victories and felt my pain and my sorrows. I would not be who I am if you all had not been in my life. In all things I do as a teacher and as a human, I am inspired by you all. I hope to someday be half the teacher that you all have been in my life.

If a teacher helped make you who you are today, take a minute to thank them this week.

Things They Don’t Prepare You For

In college, I majored in Mathematics and minored in Secondary Education. I often complained about the fact that I felt the Mathematics degree was ridiculous because there is no way I would teach anything past Calculus, and yet here I was, taking lots and lots of classes way past calculus. You thought Geometry proofs were awful? Well let me tell you about Real Analysis multi-page proofs! Actually I won’t do that because I think even my dad would stop reading my blog at that point and Papa G LOVES my blog. I felt like I should be taking education classes that better prepared me to be the teacher I had dreamed I would be instead of theoretical math classes.

Well fast forward four (?!) years since its completion and the mathematics degree is one of my proudest accomplishments. The whole reason I decided to become a teacher was because math had not come easily to me, but with the help of some incredible teachers, I learned to love the struggle. And let me tell you, in the college level mathematics courses, the struggle was real. Here’s a shout out to the professors who didn’t slam their doors when they saw me coming, the people who let me join their study groups even though all I ever could usually contribute was snacks and the occasional math pun, and the strangers who didn’t stare too long when I was crying in the library.

It didn’t take too long in my education classes for me to figure out, for the most part, that they also were not adequately preparing me to be the teacher of my dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my college experience and my education professors were awesome. But I think at the end of the day, there is no way to teach what happens in the classroom until you are in it (and probably over your head in it). Most of my education classes involved a heck of a lot of writing of formal lesson plans. Let me tell you, the last time I wrote a formal lesson plan was first semester of my senior year of college. We talked a lot in my education classes about an ideal school set-up with ideal students, all coming to school fed, bathed, and supported at home. I think teachers are an idealistic group of people and no one wants to crush that in college. The place I learned the most was when I was put into field placements with teachers who didn’t sugarcoat the business. I also had a professor who wanted us to know what we were getting ourselves into, and it was the best thing she ever could have done for her students (shout out Dr. S). She shared her own experiences from teaching. She had us read books about how awful some days, weeks, months, and years of teaching might be, but also how rewarding it could be. She put us in observation placements that would challenge us. She brought in former students who were now teaching to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. And she did it with a passion that got most of her students more excited about their future careers.

Even so, there was no way anyone truly could have prepared me for all that teaching would involve, although I appreciate all that tried, because they made sure I knew that there was truly no way to know what I was getting myself into.

I often say that I forget how weird my job is until I’m casually telling someone about my day and they ask if things like that happen every single day. In some ways, you become immune to the weirdness that is spending your days with teenagers. What I have yet to become immune to, and hope I never do, is the toll that teaching can take on your heart. But no one could have prepared me for it all or how to love kids through it all. If you’re looking for a job that repeatedly rips your heart out of your chest and smashes it on the ground, then teaching might just be for you!

My first real wake-up call with this was while I was student teaching. I completed my student teaching, as well as my first two years of teaching in an urban school district. It was a whole new world from where I had gone to high school. I was working individually with a student when she showed me her gunshot wound. The way she said it, it was almost as if she expected me to show her mine. She had been caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs when she was younger.

My first year of teaching was filled with wake-up calls of how truly blessed I had grown up. Many of my students were homeless, abused, orphaned. They had lost family and friends in tragic ways. I remember hearing about a young man in a neighboring town being shot, only to discover it was the friend of one of my students the next morning. No one can teach you what to say to make that okay.

The summer between my first and second year of teaching, I lost a student to suicide. I received the phone call on a Sunday morning and had never been quite so grateful that I didn’t have to stand in front of a group of teenagers the next day to try to provide them answers and comfort because I had none. No one can teach you how to do that.

After two years, I left urban education and accepted at a job in a suburb very much like the town I grew up in. There were lots of reasons behind the change, but one of the big ones was because my heart needed a break from the hurt. It did not take long for me to learn that no matter where I was, I would never truly be prepared for all of the things I would face as a teacher.

On the second day of school at my new job, the police thwarted a school attack plan and school was cancelled as they searched the school from top to bottom (twice) to ensure students and staff were safe. When we returned, staff had an emergency meeting, we read the district provided response, guidance counselors and a crisis team were in place, and we tried to resume activities as normal as possible. A few weeks later, we were put on lock down for a possible threat that fortunately turned out to be nothing. At the beginning of this year, we were again put on lock down for over an hour. The next day, I had a tough conversation with my classes about how they felt about an event like that. We had a big conversation about making sure we never accept our personal safety being threatened as “just a thing that happens.” I was proud of how they handled the situation and the mature conversations that they had, but I never want them to think it is commonplace. Nothing can ever fully prepare you to be teaching the quadratic formula one moment while being prepared to protect your students the next.

My students have lost parents, had loved ones diagnosed with awful diseases, and dealt with community tragedies. I have cried over my email and after conversations with students and staff on many occasions knowing how much my students hearts must be hurting, wondering how I am supposed to explain this sometimes cruel and harsh world to them and alleviate just a little bit of the pain for them in any way that I can.

I took classes on classroom management and child psychology. I’ve had enough professional development in Common Core and assessment practices to last me a lifetime. Wondering how to integrate technology into your classroom? There’s a workshop for that. However, there is no teacher preparation program that can teach you all about the ways the world will hurt your kids. There is no training about how to love on kids when life is hard and the world is cruel. There is no magical combination of words you can say to make things okay for them. All you can do is your best to be human and love them, and in my experience, I’ve learned that that is enough.

I Hope My Kiddos Know

Well we’ve officially been back in school for a few weeks and the first (but most definitely not the last) common cold of the school year has made its appearance. At the beginning of the year, teachers spend a lot of time in meetings discussing what our students should know by the end of our course. I think this is fantastic. I am a very goal oriented person. I hope by the end of the year, my students have learned all sorts of things about transforming parent graphs, solving systems of equations, and graphing. I hope they walk out my door in June with their brains filled with all sorts of mathematical knowledge. I truly believe math is one of the most beneficial courses a student can take. After all, I say that my math degree makes me a professional problem solver (and mathemagician). However, I hope my kiddos have so much more than equations and formulas in their heads and their hearts when they walk out my door. At the end of the year, it was always more than an SLO, PPG, PDP, STAR Test data, ACT score, and whatever else has made its way into education. I hope they know so much more than math.

I hope my kiddos know they are so loved. I don’t know how parent’s hearts do it. I’ve only had these kids for less than a month and my heart bursts with joy when they share exciting news with me or I see them accomplish things. I am so thrilled to see the people they become this year and truly feel honored to get to be a part of it all. When the world seems dark and dreary, they give me so much hope that they can make it bright and beautiful. Sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to love on these mini adults all day long. Anyone who has ever heard me talk about my students knows that I think they are the bees knees.

I hope my kiddos know that character will get you so much further in life than the AP Calc exam. I hope them know I want them to succeed in their classes, but at the end of the day, I want them to be good people. I want to see them lift up those around them. I want to see them be brave. I want to see them always try to make the world a little bit better. I want them to know their academic self is just a part of the much bigger picture.

I hope my kiddos know how to laugh at themselves. I hope I teach them this by laughing at myself. I also hope they know that they help me remember to laugh. And not just little laughs. They make me gasp for air laugh. They remind me it doesn’t always have to be so serious. There are many days where I sit at my desk at the end of the day and hope that other people have the opportunity to smile during their workday. They also make my Facebook friends laugh when I post about the funny things they do and say and we could all use a little more laughter.

I hope my kiddos know that we are all human (me included) and that we will make mistakes. There will be days where I am not my best me. I will be cranky, hangry, caffeine deprived, sad, or distracted. I try to leave all of that outside of the classroom but sometimes I fail. I hope that they learn humility from me. I hope they see that when I fall (sometimes literally), that I pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue on, you know, after I fill out the accident report because that may or may not have happened. I hope they see that I can admit when I was wrong, whether I forgot a negative sign or told a kid to put his phone away when it was actually his calculator (OOPS!). I hope they know that their mistakes from yesterday do not have to be who they are today.

I hope my kiddos know how to deal with people who aren’t their favorites. I’m realistic enough to know that not every student who walks through my door is going to be a fan of me. I’ve had a few come up with some rather creative ways to get their points across (on those days, I dig the kind words from students out of my desk and dig into my candy stash). However, I hope they know that I still have something important to share with them. I hope they learn to work with group members that they don’t see eye to eye with, because every adult will tell you that life is basically one giant group project, and you’re never going to be able to like everyone, as hard as you might try.

I hope my kiddos know to stand up to a challenge. Math is hard. High school is hard. Life is hard. I hope they learn not to give up on something just because it won’t be easy. Persevering through problem solving is not just one of the Mathematical Processes. It is a way of life.

I hope my kiddos know they inspire me. Everyday I see students face difficult situations. I see them balance their coursework, jobs, extracurriculars, family, friends, and the trauma that is being a teenager. I see them lift each other up. I see them aspire to live out their dreams. I see them truly believe they can do anything they set their minds to. When the news hurts my heart, they give me hope that maybe we aren’t all doomed. How could we be with such an incredible group of young people ready to take on the world?

I hope my kiddos learn about passion from me. I hope they can see it in my daily life. I hope they know I am passionate about them, about math, about my job, and about life. I hope it inspires them to find something they are passionate about.

So yes, I hope by the end of the year, 90% of my students are proficient at solving a system of equations. I intend on getting all of my seniors across that graduation stage, even if I have to drag a few of them. I hope their brains are filled with academic knowledge. However, I hope they know so much more about the things that no textbook could ever cover.

Teaching

Teaching is hard. Like really, really hard. Like you maybe have to be a little crazy to willingly agree to spend your days with teenagers. It has been said that there is no tired like a teacher at the end of the school year tired, and oh how very true that is. I have all sorts of countdowns to get me through the day. How many times I have to wake up to an alarm and put on real pants? 14 times. How many more times I have to see my most obnoxious students? 6. How many more tests I have to grade? 100. How many final exams to grade? 100. How many turns of study hall duty? 2.

Ask any teacher about the things that make their job hard. It won’t take long for them to come up with a very long list, likely to include meetings, paperwork, too much to do in too little time, parents who aren’t involved enough, parents who are too involved, students with overwhelming gaps, behavior issues, standardized testing, teacher evaluation systems, government mandates, students who still think that squaring a negative number results in a negative, no matter how many times you’ve explained to them that it does not. The list goes on and on. That last one might just be a problem I have, though.

So what’s the hardest part about teaching? For me, it is that every time a student feels pain, I feel pain. When the world hurts them, it hurts me. Their pain feels like my own. I have spent a decent amount of time crying at my desk, crying in the bathroom, crying in my car, and crying on my kitchen floor because my heart hurts for my kids. I have witnessed students persevere through situations that no child should have to face. I have seen the world knock them down and hand them crummy situations. I have watched their hopes and dreams be crushed by this sometimes cruel world. I have watched them lose family and friends. The summer between my first and second year of teaching, I had a student take his own life. It all hurts my heart so much that sometimes I’m not sure how long I can do it for. I’m also really glad I didn’t change my major to social work.

Teaching is a two-sided coin, though. There are so many wonderful things about teaching. For starters, June, July, and August. The never ending supply of baked goods. The fact that I get paid to force people to listen to my stories, corny jokes, and math songs for eight hours a day.

So what’s the best part about teaching? Their victories feel like my victories. Sometimes they are big and sometimes they are small (although in teaching, I think all little victories are big victories). There is no feeling quite like the feeling I get when a student who has struggled finally has that light bulb click on. Sometimes you are scrolling through Facebook and you see a picture of a former student holding her college degree in one hand and her beautiful daughter in the other. This year, I had the privilege of watching a student take on a teaching internship, spending her afternoons working with students with cognitive disabilities. She shines in her role. I have seen students make the right choice, even when they think no one is watching. I have watched students become so much more than their circumstances, despite all odds. Nothing makes my heart soar the way a student running into my classroom in the morning because they just had to tell me about something that went right with them. How lucky I am that I get to share in those victories, and maybe even sometimes help them happen.

It is easy to get caught up in the day to day hustle bustle of teaching, or any job for that matter. We often let the bad overshadow the good. Don’t for one minute doubt the meaningful and purposeful work that you have the opportunity to be a part of. And teacher friends, be sure to rest up this summer, because as always, next year is guaranteed to be an emotional roller coaster.

Teacher Appreciation Week

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! It really is a real thing, I promise. Obama made a proclamation and everything. Heck, Chipotle has Buy One, Get One Free burritos today. May is a tough month for teachers, so this week couldn’t fall at a better time. It’s the end of the year. The end is in sight, but there is so much to do. AP Tests, Prom, field trips galore, sporting events, graduation, the list goes on and on.

This week, my advisory students were assigned the task of choosing a teacher that had an impact on their life and writing them a thank you letter. It is a struggle at this point of the year to get my advisory to do anything but complain. They rose to the occasion. Some wanted to write more than one. Some wanted me to track down addresses for teachers who worked at a different school. Some wanted to hand deliver them and others wanted them to be an anonymous surprise. Some wanted more time to make sure they really did their teacher justice. A few made a joke of it or took the lazy way out, because this isn’t a Hallmark movie special.

So I suppose it is only right that I also write a thank you to the teachers who have made me who I am today. I have been so fortunate to always have teachers in my life, including my own teachers, coworkers, and peers, who have inspired, challenged, loved, guided, bettered, and believed in me, long after I’ve left their classrooms. I could truly write about every teacher I have ever encountered, but it’s May and I’m a teacher and my to-do list is growing exponentially by the second. So here it goes:

Mrs. Vaughn, 3rd Grade: I had always liked learning, but Mrs. Vaughn’s 3rd Grade classroom at LGS made me fall in love with learning. It was impossible to pick a favorite subject, because she made them all come alive. She had us elect a local government to teach us civics. (I was one heck of a class mayor). Studying for spelling and times tests were exciting when turned into games. We made and played our own board games to learn about the solar system. I had my acting debut in her class. When an adult hurt my feelings, she taught me to handle it with grace and poise while still standing up for myself.

Ms. Mac, 4th Grade: Ms. Mac could have written the book on differentiation and the “I’m very disappointed in you” look. I have never seen a teacher strive to meet every student’s individual needs the way she did. I had read most of the books the class would be reading. So she went to the library and checked out new books for and wrote projects for me to complete to challenge me. No matter how bad you messed up, she never yelled or scolded. She let you know how disappointed in you she was because she knew you could do better. My heart still sinks to my stomach thinking about anytime I fell short of her expectations. I believed I could be better because she believed I could be better. And I still feel a little bit guilty to this day about continuing to pass notes even after she told me not to.

Mr. Adams, 7th Grade: Math was hard. Like really hard. Like whoever had the brilliant idea to put me in accelerated math was wrong. Until Mr. Adams made it fun. He taught me to laugh at myself. He taught me that we all deserve a second chance every once in a while. He taught me that just because it doesn’t come easily doesn’t mean it won’t come at all. I’ll even overlook the fact that he is a Cubs fan.

Mrs. Oxborrow, Drama: Freshman year is terrifying. I maybe would have gone home and never come back if it hadn’t been for Oxborrow’s smiling face on the first day of my drama class. Little did she know she would see me pretty much every single day for the next four years, whether it was drama class, independent study, play practice, coaching me for my speech team piece, letting me bug her at baseball games, or taking up her entire lunch so I could cry about how sometimes life just wasn’t fair.

Mrs. Fillman, Family and Consumer Science: There is a pretty good chance I wouldn’t be a teacher if it wasn’t for this woman. After taking her child development class and working High School/Pre-School, Mrs. Fillman was one of my bosses at my summer job at the Washington pool. One night when closing up, she asked me what I planned on doing with my life. I told her I had no idea. She told me I would be a teacher. I told her she was crazy and there is no way I would do that. She asked if I planned on working at the pool my entire life and throwing away a gift of working with kids. Well it was hard to argue with that.

Señora Sandy, Spanish: My students ask what I would teach if I didn’t teach math. I tell them I think I would teach Spanish because of Señora Sandy. She taught me that a foreign language was so much more than a college admission requirement. Spanish was a doorway to a global community. The talks of her travels abroad inspired me to see the world and I think of her every time I step on a plane.

Mr. Smith, Math: I had decided I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to teach yet. That is, until I was in Mr. Smith’s class. Math never came easy to me. Everyone else seemed to get it right off the bat, but I had to work at it. Mr. Smith taught me to love the struggle. Many mornings were spent asking him to explain something just one more time while he had breakfast duty in the commons. He believed I could do it, so I in turn believed in myself. He was the first person I told that I was thinking about being a math teacher, and he was the first person he told me he really thought I could be successful as a math major.

Karin Sconzert, Secondary Education: My first college class ever was Education 101 with Karin Sconzert. My last official college class was Classroom Management with Karin Sconzert. I could not have asked for a better professor to bookend my Carthage career. She didn’t sugarcoat the business we were getting into. It was going to be hard. We were going to get frustrated. There would be a lot of things out of our control. A lot of education professors like to paint education as nothing but rainbows and butterflies. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a classroom will tell you that is false. Karin let us know what we were getting into an equipped us to be successful despite the obstacles. We read stories and listened to guest speakers. She put us in classrooms that allowed us to experience the real deal. She continues to support us into our careers, whether it’s sharing resources, or if your as lucky as I was, offering words of encouragement in her kitchen.

Janet Carpino, Math: I had the opportunity to observe Janet Carpino when I was completing my undergrad. I was overwhelmed with schoolwork and contemplating if I was making the right career path. Until I got placed in her Algebra 1A/1B class. Most of the students didn’t speak English as their first language. Many of them were special education. A lot of them had some severe behavioral issues. Watching a very pregnant Janet teach this class rejuvenated my decision to become a teacher. I wanted to be Mrs. Carpino. A few years later, I had the incredible opportunity to be her colleague. Her guidance and support helped me become the teacher I always dreamed of being.

Sonya Sutton, Math: December 2012 I received a piece of paper that changed my life. I would be teaching high school with Sonya Sutton in the Spring for my final student teaching placement. Her no-nonsense attitude equipped me to deal with my toughest classes. I had never met someone capable of treating every human they encounter with genuine respect, but Sonya does. She is now a guidance counselor. I think she spends just as much time providing guidance to the staff as she does providing guidance to the students.

Jackie Yunker, Math: I got really lucky when I got a work best friend and a life best friend all in one. I strive to achieve the patience she has when working with students. Her willingness to share lessons, ideas, insights, and baked goods is unmatched. Her willingness to set aside her to-do lists to let me vent has kept me sane. She believed in me as a teacher on the days I didn’t believe in myself.

Lea Sparks, Math: I used to spend my spring breaks and part of my summers in Kentucky with my aunt, who was a middle school math teacher. In August, we would go to the store where she would buy school supplies for all of her students, out of her own pocket. I remember being so confused as to why she would have to buy all of her students supplies out of her own pocket. She made sure every student had what they needed to be successful. When I would go to school with her, we would get to school before the sun made an appearance. She taught me that teaching is selfless.

I could go on and on and truly never do these incredible ladies and gentlemen justice. You have cheered with me in my victories and felt my pain and my sorrows. I would not be who I am if you all had not been in my life. In all things I do as a teacher and as a human, I am inspired by you all. I hope to someday be half the teacher that you all have been in my life.

If a teacher helped make you who you are today, take a minute to thank them this week.